I'm not feeling terribly inspired to write now but figured I ought to at least give those who were curious a small run down on how things have been going. I'm writing this on a Monday night and as of right now I have officially been here one week.
The country is beautiful, but it's immediately palpable that things are not easy here. Driving from Guatemala City to Panajachel (about a 3 hour ride) gave view to a vast array of abundant farmland—my bus driver pointed out the cauliflower, pumpkin, carrots, coffee, ma and various other crops—but at the same time the deep levels of poverty are quickly evident. Driving through the lush greenery that one would expect of Central America, it's hard to miss the polluted streets and rundown shacks of corrugated metal and wood that serve as homes. As we got further from the city the landscape quickly change from hilly, rolling (or otherwise treacherous mountain scenery to those hailing from West Texas) farmland into winding mountain roads. It's a bit muggy here and I had to concentrate pretty hard going through the snaking mountain pass to hold my stomach. The private driver I hired to bring me to Pana brought his sisters along for the ride, who spent a small deal of the ride asking me what I thought about my current situation and my first impressions of Guatemala. The younger of the two, still probably in her mid-thirties, cordially invited me to visit her in Antigua to go salsa dancing one weekend—albeit to the chagrin of her brother, the driver. I politely handed her my pen and paper and assured her I would call her soon. We'll see…
We finally broke through the pass and the lake became immediately visible. It was cloudy that day so I couldn't see the full landscape, but it was still very impressive. We wound our away around down into the town and the driver pulled aside on a street and let me get out. I called Alton, the man I was supposed to meet to take me to my host family's house, and he met me on the opposite side of town so as to show me the key areas of interest on our way to the house. He showed me a few bars, showed me where the Spanish school is (I'm hiring my room through them and have to pay them weekly…) and then brought me to my house. My house is a lot nicer than I was really expecting and my room is simple but very comfortable. I've got a bed, a table, a lawn chair and a computer desk. Nothing more. My room is situated in the middle of the house in such a manner that I have windows facing one area and my door faces a larger atrium, through which I must pass so as to pass through another door which leads to the area opposite of the windows in my room. Too many prepositions, but you get the idea. I can hear EVERYTHING in the house. I wake up every morning at 530 AM to the shrill chirp of some ungodly pet bird from the upstairs apartment (my host mother's sister's apartment), and was witness to some sort of argument between my host mother and father on the other side of my windows at about 1 AM last week (I'm still unsure of the exact issue, he either cheated on her or was fired…). They're both very nice people; he works while she stays at home with her 7 month old baby and their 6 or 7 year old son Juan Carlos. They've both got college degrees so they're more or less automatically part of the upper class of Guatemalan society.
The same day I was introduced to the city, Alton took me to the Grameen office to meet the people. My main boss was out visiting clients when I came, so I briefly introduced myself to those there and we made our way back into the central part of town where Alton and I went our separate ways. I went back to the Spanish school to update my parents via Skype that I had arrived and to pay my rent and rent a cell phone. I went back to my room and read for a while and fell asleep shortly after dinner.
The next morning I woke up at 7 and had my breakfast (some sort of warmed milk liquid with cocoa crisps in it) and walked to work. Luckily, I live about 5 minutes by foot from work. I talked to Alomgir—the main boss—and discussed a few things and he gave me three books on Grameen Bank and microcredit to read. I spent most of the first day thumbing through those books and finished one of them. I was very bored that day and tried very hard to keep my patience about me, imagining things will eventually look up as I take a more defined role in what I'm supposed to be doing for them.
The next morning I had the opportunity to go out and visit a couple of centers. In the Grameen Bank method of microcredit, and more specifically the branch here, only women are allowed to take out loans. In order to receive a loan, a woman must find a group of 4 other women so as to form a group. To form a center, there must be a total of 5 to 6 groups, and the subsequent center aims to have about 30 members. The groups are formed as a means of social pressure on the repayment of loans. The loans are given without collateral and the basic idea is that each woman will feel socially and morally obliged to do her best to pay the loan back. The women must visit the main branch office in Panajachel to receive their loans and at that point after they are visited by a loan officer every 15 days and required to pay a small part of the loan they receive. For instance, and only estimating because I cannot remember the exact numbers, but on received loan they will pay somewhere between 75-120 Guatemalan Quetzales, depending on their plan (there's about 8 Quetzales to 1 US dollar right now). Twenty percent of that payment is taken as interest and another 2 Quetzales is put into a savings fund that the women can use in case of emergency. The twenty percent interest rate does seem high, but it is a fairly small amount in terms of what other loans may be available to women of such social status—e.g. some rates amounting to upwards of 300%. A microfinance institution is not inexpensive to run and these loans are truly aimed at assisting the women in building their businesses and breaking the cycle of poverty. The bank does not aim to tear the women down through the loans, the exact reason for the absence of a requirement of collateral.
The day before I was to visit the centers I met a loan officer, David, who offered to take me out into the country and told me to bring a jacket as we'd be traveling by motorcycle. I've always wanted a motorcycle but that first ride on the motorcycle, my first ever, scared me out of my mind. I got used to it after about 30 minutes and now I'm even more certain I'm going to have a motorcycle at some point. Anyhow, we traveled to the first center which was about 30 minutes outside of Pana. I followed David as he asked permission to enter the small clay house we had arrived at. The house was dimly lit, but as my eyes adjusted I was able to see all of the women of the center sitting, patiently awaiting David's arrival. David addressed them and introduced me as the American visitor and asked me to say a few words. A little surprised by the gesture and unable to put together a solid Spanish introduction for myself in such short notice, I muttered something along the lines of thanks so much for letting me be here, I'm glad to be here. The women giggled in a non-threatening manner and we continued on with the meeting. David asked the elected president of the center to begin the meeting and as she stood, the rest followed suit. They said a quick prayer and then went repeated after the president the promises they had taken when they received the loan: to begin and end the meetings punctually, to use the loans only to further the success of their businesses and not for personal reasons such as buying clothes or food, to try to improve their lives and that of their families, and to drink only water from tube wells or boiled water. After this they sit down and David began the process of collecting each individual's small booklet and loan payment. He noted each woman's payment and subtracted that from the loan total and made a note of the paid interest as well as the additional 2 Quetzal deposit into their savings account. He went through each group and after each handed back said group's booklets. He let me go through and write in the tallies on a few of the books so I could see how it worked. Once he finished with that, and the books were returned he prompted to the president to end the meeting and we collected our gatherings and took off on the motorcycle to two other centers where the situation was much the same.
That day we visited three centers (each loan officer is encouraged to take on a load such that they visit three centers every day Monday-Thursday, I'm not sure yet, but I think there's between 4 and 6 loan officers at the branch). The next day I was able to visit another two centers and a capacitación, or training of a new center.
I didn't realize I was going to be so long winded when I started this so for both your sake and mine, I'm going to break the rest of my week and weekend into another entry. Expect that at some point later this week…
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